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JAMES, KEARSE LEAD ROOKIE CLASS OF QUICK LEARNERS

There is a saying among NFL coaches that you can't accurately assess a college draft until it ferments for at least two years. This season, there will be indicators in the playoffs that may accelerate the judgment.

Most every playoff team has at least one rookie essential to its success in the postseason. The two most obvious cases are Edgerrin James in Indianapolis and Jevon Kearse in Tennessee.

James has been the second coming of Jim Brown as a member of the Indy triplets, along with quarterback Peyton Manning and wide receiver Marvin Harrison. Kearse not only is the all-time rookie sacker, the kid defensive end with the wing span of a condor is leading the AFC in that specialty.

Here's a rundown of teams who have clinched or are most likely to clinch playoff berths and the best of their freshman class:

INDIANAPOLIS: James, the first-round selection, has obscured second-round linebacker Mike Peterson, but when the speedy Florida Gator broke into the starting lineup in Week 4, the Colt defense got better.

Terrence Wilkins was considered strictly a return man when the season began, but he played so well as a wide receiver when E.G. Green was injured that Green hasn't been able to win back his starting job. The Colts' rookie punter, Hunter Smith, has been solid.

JACKSONVILLE: Cornerback Fernando Bryant is the Jaguars' only rookie starter, but he is one of the reasons the defensive unit rose from 25th in the NFL to a berth among the best.

ST. LOUIS: He gets lost among the Rams' wealth of receivers, but rookie Torry Holt demonstrated his own game-breaking abilities. Dre' Bly was a three-time All-American at North Carolina, notorious as a pass interceptor. As the Rams' nickel back he returned an interception for a touchdown two weeks ago.

WASHINGTON: If it weren't for the Redskins' overall defensive struggles, Champ Bailey would belong in the company of James and Kearse. He may be the best all-around player in this rookie class. Right tackle Jon Jansen has been a starter and a solid one since opening day, possibly a future star.

DETROIT: The Lions received just one major push from a rookie in its surprising battle for the championship of the NFC Central and that came from Chris Claiborne, the linebacker they made the ninth pick in the draft.

BUFFALO: Antoine Winfield and Peerless Price may turn out to be more important for what they do in the coming weeks. Winfield has been a fine nickel back, but now he'll be Target No. 1 as the replacement for injured Kenny Irvin at left cornerback. Eric Moulds, the Bills' only consistent playmaker, can expect blanket coverage. Price has big-play possibilities that must be translated into production to compensate for the attention paid to Moulds.

TAMPA BAY: The Bucs may have no choice but to keep rookie Shaun King as their starting quarterback. They get more consistency from kicker Martin Gramatica, who is as accurate a field-goaler in the NFL as he was at Kansas State.

MIAMI: Jimmy Johnson has no choice but to lean on the running of his namesake, J.J. Johnson, as well as the blocking, pass catching and running of Syracuse grad Rob Konrad.

MINNESOTA: What started out as the oddest draft of all turned out to be helpful later on. The Vikings, a team one overtime period away from the Super Bowl a season ago, had two first-round picks and wasted them both. They took quarterback Daunte Culpepper, a long-term prospect but no help now, and the unfortunate Dimitrius Underwood, just released by Miami without playing a game.

In the second round, they took small college tight end Jimmy Kleinsasser (North Dakota), who seemed to be a long-term prospect but has been used as the starting fullback most of the season. Their fourth-round pick, safety Kenny Wright, started most of the season and free agent corner Chris Rogers also had four starts.

KANSAS CITY: Not much rookie help. Mike Cloud has been a member of the running back committee.

SEATTLE: No rookie starters. The only contribution came from kick returner Charlie Rogers.

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